Is contemplative prayer a legitimate Christian practice?

Cover of

Over at Internet Monk, an excellent review of a book on classic Christian spirituality, Gary Thomas’s Sacred Pathways, has stirred up a heck of a hornet’s nest. A couple of critics are insisting at some length that contemplative prayer of the sort Thomas, Foster, Willard, and others recommend is “syncretistic” and thus dangerous.

Here is an excerpt from the review:

If you’ve read anything else by Gary Thomas or checked out his website, you know that unlike some evangelicals he believes that the Holy Spirit has been active throughout Christian history, not just since 1517. He’s willing to look at different Christian traditions and learn from them.  Mr. Thomas is the founder and director of The Center for Evangelical Spirituality, “a ministry that integrates Scripture, church history, and the Christian classics.”  From his knowledge of Christian history and practice, he has outlined nine “sacred pathways.”

I won’t tell you what the nine pathways are.  Read the book.  But I will detail the two things I found most helpful about this book.

First and most important, it gave me permission to be different, to have different gifts, different needs, and a different way to relate to God. My spiritual life had been the valley of dry bones for years.  I kept taking more Bible studies at church, beating myself up for my inability to get anything out of a quiet time, examining myself for unconfessed sin — Whew.  Then Sacred Pathways reminded me that great Christians throughout the ages had approached God in different ways.  Some had been contemplatives, some reformers, some fierce intellectuals — and all had grown spiritually themselves as well as contributing to the beauty of the Church Universal.  I felt on reading this book that I had walked out of a tiny house — a nice little house, but very limited — and suddenly seen a vast world all the way to the horizon.

The second thing that’s helpful about this book is its practicality. There are clear descriptions of the sacred pathways, short tests to help you determine which appeal to you, resources for you to discover more about them, and examples of Christians who exemplify them.  An excellent feature was the caution in each chapter.  Any practice out of balance can lead to extremism, and Mr. Thomas does well to warn us of the inherent temptations of pursuing one pathway exclusively.  He understands that our goal as Christians is to grow to be like Christ, not to be the extreme example of intellectualism or contemplation.

A sacred pathway is a way a person takes toward God.  The quiet time/Bible study route is a sacred pathway and is very helpful to some people.  But for those of us who feel the need for something different, who were perhaps made a little differently, Thomas outlines nine Christian practices of personal worship.

You can finish the review and check out the ensuing discussion here.

I have to say that I’m very uncomfortable with the claims being made by self-appointed “discernment ministers” in the discussion spurred by the above review and elsewhere that contemplative prayer and other classic Christian spiritual practices are hopeless infected by “foreign” religious elements and therefore can only draw us away from gospel faith.

I believe that as the reviewer has noted, the problem lies, at its root, with a wrong-headed understanding of Christian history and tradition. Here is the response I posted, after someone made the tired claim that all traditions are “man-made,” and therefore we must stay away from them. As if we could!

About traditions that come supposedly “from man, and not from God”: Our generation, like all generations before us, has no other access to God than through traditions.

Sacrilege! you say. We have our Bible, which comes directly from God! All else is syncretism, mixture, unfaithfulness!

Read D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition. That faithful Baptist is still willing to admit, as should we all, that the Bible comes to us, yes, from God, but also through the church and, indeed, tradition.

Therefore, if tradition is only “from man, and not from God,” then let’s all just pack it in–we’re playing a fool’s game.

If, instead, God has always worked in and through human witness–that is, human tradition–then we must be very, very circumspect before we dismiss something as deeply rooted in Christian tradition as contemplative prayer.

I don’t know whether this image will help, but in excising what some take to be a diseased molar, infected with the rot of syncretism, the cocksure critics of today may be in danger of removing jaw, skull, brain, and all; or in plain language: Trinity, Incarnation, Bible, and our very access to the Most High God.

Of course this will seem ludicrous to the critics of tradition. But bear with me for a moment more:

What is ironic is that the same people who make these arguments against the precious repository of Christian tradition also assume the inviolable truth of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Bible, all of which were formed, as is easy to demonstrate from Christian history, in the midst of the church and through the process of “traditioning”–a discerning, contested, confused, but the church East and West has always believed, Spirit-guided handing-down from one generation to the next.

The teachers of the church (bishops) gathered repeatedly in council to hammer out the beliefs on which these modern “surgeons of the church” still stake their faith: that God is three in one; that Jesus Christ is one hundred percent human and one hundred percent divine, “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”; and much more.

If we think these and other key doctrines, whose truth we presume even if we often don’t (and probably don’t need to) articulate exactly as those early councils, did come directly, clearly, obviously from Scripture, and that this Scripture was untouched by “human tradition,” then we ignore the real experience of the historic church: Real disagreements arose between the wisest of our pastors and teachers, who sought understanding because of, not instead of, faith in Christ. A long process of discernment was required to arrive at the formulations on which our faith is still based–whether it is based explicitly (in creedal churches) or implicitly (in those who think they can do without creeds, yet affirm essentially the same truths).

Furthermore, those formulations themselves mark out areas of mystery, indeed areas still open to discovery, variation, honest disagreement. The bishops of the Council of Chalcedon, who wrote the “four fences of Chalcedon” quoted above (“without confusion, without change . . .”), intentionally declined to define precisely what IS the relationship between the humanity and the divinity of Christ. Why? Because it is not given to the minds of humans to know this, and all attempts to define it have sat uncomfortably with the early Rule of Faith and the witness of the whole canon of Scripture.

So too with contemplative prayer and so many other practices in Christian worship and spirituality. All of these address the God who shows himself and yet also remains hidden. So humility and charity are necessary in approaching the worship practices of other Christians. Where syncretism is obvious and explicit, we must deal with that. Where it is not, we must approach circumspectly.

Probably it’s time for me to be quiet. And certainly it is time for me to get some sleep.

9 responses to “Is contemplative prayer a legitimate Christian practice?

  1. I would never have imagined contemplative prayer to be a controversy! Then again, by the time I learned about it I was well out of the Baptist fold. So I don’t know what would have happened when I was 15 and still a SBC girl, if my pastor would have accepted it.

  2. Didn’t realize you read Internet Monk, Chris! I’ve been reading it for about a year-and-a-half, and got MERE CHURCHIANITY as a birthday present.

  3. Chris , thanks for the link, just add “ditto” to what Damaris said. Probably foolishly, I spent 5 min or so roaming around Ken S.’s site today; enough of that…..even Michael Horton wasn’t safe. I’m going to try and be less combative on my IMONK posts, and sometimes that is REALLY hard; it’s like someone walking into your living room and running an Amway meeting thru a bullhorn, at 6am or something. I’m very weak on church history, so I’ll be checking back from time to time. here’s my e-mail: give me whatever updates you send your friends about just anything
    Blessings and the shalom of GOD on you and yours….and yes, on Ken. S as well :-0

    • Thanks for the kind words, Greg. It is hard to be calm and irenic when the blood rises at some of the nonsense spewed by these “discernment ministers.” The church needs prophetic voices, but those voices need to be honest and humble, not deceitful (in leaving out most of the story, and not knowing much of the rest) and arrogant (in barging into various “living rooms” with the bullhorn).

      I see you’ve subscribed to this blog via email. That’ll get you “just everything” related to his blog–straight to your emailbox. You may wish you hadn’t. 🙂

  4. You are right. It is a tired discussion involving people who thinks that Christianity started with the Reformation. I read Gary Thomas’ book when it was first published and found it a well balanced and practical book of Christian spirituality. And I agree with the reviewer’s comments. I have also read D.H.Williams and find his arguments compelling.

    Sometimes it is worrisome to imagine what type of Christian spirituality some Christians have who live inside their heads only.

  5. Thanks for the link to this site. I’ll be back. I love the beautiful artwork as well as the meaty commentary.

    Damaris Zehner

    • Thanks Damaris. WordPress is simply the best free blogging platform out there. The people at WordPress constantly upgrade the tools available even to the free blogger, including the ability to bring you this beautiful artwork. I’d recommend them to anyone starting a blog–and to those less than satisfied with their current platforms.

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